20 December 2010

The Dictionary of Soul: General Johnson

General Norman Johnson was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1941 and began singing in church as a boy. By the age of 12, young General (his real given name) had formed his first group, dubbed The Humdingers.

By the late 1950s, Johnson and his mates - Milton Wells, Gene and Dorsey Knight, and Leslie Fleton - thought they were on the verge of something big. "We had a contract with Atlantic as The Humdingers," recalled Johnson in a 1987 interview with Soul Express. "We did some demos, but they were never released because [of a conflict with management] and our careers went down the tube. The music we did was kind of doo-wopish."

The Norfolk quintet headed down to New Orleans and had its first bit of luck. Renamed The Showmen, their breakout single was a B-side: "I Will Stand." The 1961 The production board for that 45rpm single was helmed by a then-unknown Allen Touissant at Minit Records. The tune made it to the bottom of both the R&B and Pop charts. The New York Times called "I Will Stand," written by Johnson, "a defiant ode to the power of rock 'n roll." The listener can hear the doo-wop influence laid over the unmistakable Crescent City beat.

The Showmen's upbeat brand of rhythm and blues became commonly known as "Carolina beach music." Another prime example of their unique regional sound - as recognizable as the soul strongholds of Chicago or Philadelphia - is the fine "Our Love Will Grow."

General Johnson moved to Detroit in 1969 to join a group being formed by famed Motown songwriters and producers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. The hitmakers had had a famous falling out with record titan Barry Gordy and were starting their own label, Invictus.

The name given to the fledgling four vocal stylists was The Chairmen of the Board. And they immediately lived up to their grandiose title when they hit No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart with the all-time soul jukebox (and now oldies radio) classic "Give Me Just a Little More Time." Johnson is captivating on the record, providing a pleading, searing vocal punctuated by his unforgettable "Bbbrrrrr!" that lands near the end of the track. With that signature move, General Johnson made his own mark on rock and roll.

The Chairmen of the Board scored a few more minor hits ("Dangling On A String," "Pay To The Piper" and "Everything's Tuesday") before breaking up, mainly as a result of a salary dispute that Johnson had with Invictus.

But the early 1970s found Johnson's writing skills also earning him some money and industry recognition. The Top 10, Grammy winning "Patches" launched the career of Clarence Carter. And girl group the Honey Cone had success on the charts with songs like "Want Ads" and "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show."

Johnson took off to Europe after the dispute with Invictus, gaining some acclaim as a practitioner of what that continent dubbed as "Northern Soul." Upon his return to the States, he struck a deal with Clive Davis of Arista Records. "I stayed there two, three years. [Davis] paid me well, but I only did one album (1976's General Johnson)," recalled Johnson.

This led to a production gig for Martha Reeves, and then a meeting in California with Barry Gordy. "He was trying to get me to come to Motown. I would have loved to work with him, but my Ma was sick and I wanted to do something on my own, a business of my own," Johnson told Soul Express.

Thus was born Surfside Records in 1979, owned by Johnson and his partner Michael Branch. He returned back to the Carolinas and continued to practice his craft as an independent. The two also became booking agents, producing large shows over the years in the area starring the likes of The Chairmen of the Board, Cornelius Bothers and Sister Rose, The Tymes and The Emperors.

In one of his last interviews in June of this year, Johnson told The News & Observer that he preferred that type of musical life because he valued creative control and savored beach music. "That's the thing about a good song," he said. "Let's say that song was put out 10 years ago, the recording company is done, whoever wrote the song is dead or just ain't writing songs no more. But that song is still there."

General Johnson died this past 13 October in Atlanta due to complications of lung cancer. His friend Chris Beachley said, "He was the king of Carolina beach music."

[Ed. note: Thanks to our pal and reader Paul for the tip and initial research.]

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